Among the greatest teams in NBA history, the Lakers had stormed through the regular season with a then-record 69 wins to only 13 losses, including a ridiculous 33-game winning streak, an American professional sports record.
Cruising through the postseason, L.A. swept Chicago in the conference semifinals, beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks in six games in the conference finals and then drew the Knicks in the Finals. L.A. opened a 3-1 series lead, and had a chance to secure the team’s first championship in Los Angeles after several crushing defeats in the Finals. NBATV replayed that Game 5 against the Knicks at the Forum, and we took some notes along the way:
Pregame Intros: With ABC’s Keith Jackson handling play-by-play duties and Bill Russell – the man most responsible for denying Lakers teams of the past a championship – providing color commentary, the following starting line ups were introduced:
Lakers: Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian, Happy Hairston and Wilt Chamberlain
Knicks: Walt Frazier, Dean Meminger*, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas
*Earl Monroe played more minutes as the spark plug off the bench.
12:00 Jackson tells us that Chamberlain, wearing huge white protective gloves, is nursing a very sore shooting hand that makes it difficult for him to play. We’d soon learn that Wilt would be juuuust fine. Related: Wilt is the opposite of small.
10:35 He’s not the first Laker you’d expect to start the game on a personal 6-0 scoring spurt, but McMillian promptly drained three consecutive mid-range jumpers (he did average 18.8 ppg). Meanwhile, Chamberlain was already ripping down every rebound, no shocker as he averaged a league-best 19.2 per game in the regular season, and West added a J of his own, forcing Knicks coaching legend Red Holtzman into an early time out.
8:50 Russell’s comment after another pure jumper from West made it 10-0: “I don’t think there’s going to be a game tonight. Just a little shoot out.” It’s apparent how dominant this Laker team was in that snap shot, as Chamberlain focused largely on locking down the paint, contesting everything and then hitting the glass, with L.A. scoring at ease on the other end as shooters easily found open both in transition and in the half court.
5:00 Behind the smooth jumper of DeBusschere and a rare Bradley inside bucket despite Wilt’s contest, New York closed L.A.’s initial spurt to a four-point lead at 16-12, as Coach of the Year Bill Sharman took time out. Getting the ball inside to Chamberlain wasn’t an apparent point of emphasis, as he’d averaged just 14.8 points on the season, but hey, if it ain’t broke…
0:00 The first sub off the bench? That’s right, Pat Riley, who immediately began hustling like the five White House operatives trying to flee after burglarizing the offices of the Democratic National Committee at Watergate in that same year. One minute into his rotation, he managed to both pick up a foul and a bloody nose, not to mention a jumper that gave L.A. a 26-24 edge just before the quarter ended.
11:00 I appreciated this joke from Keith Jackson, a fantastic football announcer, after Goodrich and Frazier collided while diving after a loose ball. “It’ll be second down and six.” Russell even offered a laugh that didn’t sound fake. Speaking of Jackson’s … there’s Phil!!! Sporting a dope, fully 1970’s moppy hair cut (or lack there of), Jackson mugged Riley on the latter’s drive through N.Y.’s paint.
7:50 A great graphical “Did You Know” from NBATV: “Pat Riley was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Draft*.” Meanwhile, Frazier was playing some terrific ball at both ends, giving L.A.’s guards fits on the perimeter defensively and finishing some tough drives in transition at the other end, tying the game at 29 for the Knickerbockers.
*Riley, no question, was built like an NFL strong safety.
6:00 Phil, averaging 11.8 against the Lakers in the Finals, dropped a pretty baseline jumper and then two free throws to tie it up at 33. Of course, it was hard not to focus more on his awesome mustache.
2:50 It’s easy forget that, for how great a scorer he was, Jerry West led the NBA in assists with 9.7 per game that season (he and Goodrich both averaged over 25 points per game) as the primary ball-handler. An example was his beautiful dump off pass for a Wilt dunk after drawing the D over with a pretty drive, kicking off a 4-0 run that put LAL back in front by a point. Some fun plays to close the half included a West finger roll through traffic, Jackson destroying West with a pick to give Earl Monroe a wide open look, and Wilt (with like 13 rebounds already, by the way) easily swatting the 6-8 Jackson’s layup attempt. But N.Y. hung tough, managing a 53-all tie at the break.
12:00 The most telling stat of the first half was L.A.’s dominance of the glass at 34-20, including 13 offensive boards. New York stuck around primarily due to 14 Lakers turnovers, the Knicks giving their backs-against-the-wall elimination effort, but you’ll always take the heavy glass edge and count on limiting your TO’s into the second half.
9:16 Senator Bradley committed consecutive fouls to put the Knicks in some trouble, L.A. looking at the bonus for the rest of the quarter, as McMillian’s and-1 made it a 65-61 lead for the home team. Meanwhile, Wilt the Stilt, with three blocks already, was still controlling the paint defensively.
7:00 Showing disdain for refs wasn’t something Phil waited until his coaching career commenced to do, here having extra words after being called for stepping out of bounds. We were only about 35 years away from HD TV, so unfortunately we couldn’t catch what words Jackson used to harangue the official.
4:00: The offensive glass continued to be a major weapon for the Lakers, who got tip-ins on consecutive possessions to open a 71-63 lead. And we should give Happy Hairston some love, as he’d collected 14 total boards himself at that point, doing all the dirty work for Bill Sharman.
0:00 It was a nice offensive quarter for West, now up to 19 points despite missing two open jumpers to close the period, L.A. holding a 83-78 and looking in pretty good control of the outcome.
12:00 Keith Jackson sets the stage for the stretch run: “There has never been this much joy from this building for a Los Angeles basketball team.”
9:00 Among Chamberlain’s motley crew of basketball skills is an excellent acumen for passing, which he showed off with a pretty dime to a cutting Goodrich to put L.A. up four early in the fourth. Also: DeBusschere, named one of the league’s top 50 all-time players, had to sit with five fouls, again giving way to Phil. Not a great game for Dave.
6:55 The Lakers began to take firm control of the contest as a Hairston free throw gave L.A. its biggest lead, 96-85, of the game. Too much Wilt, West and Chamberlain – plus great role-playing from McMillian and Hairston and Riley’s spark off the pine – even for such a skilled, deep Knicks squad.
4:00 The game was all but over thanks in no small part to Chamberlain, who’d finish with 24 points, 29 rebounds and (at least) seven blocks and (by our count) nine assists. Decent.
0:00 Guess who scored the final basket of the 1972 season for the Lakers? That’s right … Jim Cleamons! Phil’s longtime assistant, then just a rookie out of Ohio State, got some garbage time minutes and after grabbing a board, finished off a fast break to make it a 114-100 final score. With a limit of two hours, NBATV had to chop off the final four minutes of the contest, but all we missed was some stat padding. Ultimately, after years of frustration, the Los Angeles Lakers had finally earned an NBA Championship, the first for the franchise since 1954 in Minneapolis. Chamberlain was named Most Valuable Player of the Finals, an award later named after the game’s commentator, Bill Russell. Good times.